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RI BIRDS

Many bird species are declining in R.I. — here are 9 that researchers will keep an eye on

“Our goal is to keep common birds common,” said Charles Clarkson, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s director of avian research.

The black-and-white warbler is one of nine birds identified as "responsiblity birds" the Audubon Society of Rhode Island says are declining regionally.Audubon Society of Rhode Island

BRISTOL, R.I. — Many bird species that call Rhode Island home are declining regionally in the face of threats like habitat loss, declines in prey abundance, outdoor cats, building and vehicle collisions, and, in the long term, climate change.

In a first-of-its-kind State of Our Birds report, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island has identified nine that researchers and volunteers will spend the next few years tracking. They’re called “Responsibility Birds,” a term borrowed from the Audubon in Vermont. These nine species include some of the iconic birds of the woods and fields of New England, from the spring-heralding red-winged blackbird to the melodic-voiced wood thrush to the blazing-red scarlet tanager.

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Scarlet tanager. Ed Hughes

And each one is declining in the region, requiring special attention to bolster their populations. The birds bear the name, but it’s the humans who bear the responsibility — both for causing the declines, and for trying to reverse them. For the most part, these birds remain common. The passenger pigeon was once common, too.

“Our goal is to keep common birds common,” Charles Clarkson, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s director of avian research, told attendees of a symposium in Bristol on Saturday.

The event, at the Audubon’s Nature Center and Aquarium, brought together experts and bird enthusiasts from around New England to learn about conservation of various species. It also marked the unveiling of the State of Our Birds report, which Clarkson authored and edited.

Things in general look challenging for avian life in Rhode Island: About a third of birds found breeding on Audubon’s refuges from January to November 2022 are experiencing long-term population declines, the report states. Only a quarter are showing increases. The numbers for overwintering species are doing only a little better, Clarkson’s report said.

The Eastern towhee, one of 9 species identified as declining regionally in the Audubon Society of Rhode Island's State of Our Birds report, is declining by more than 3 percent annually.Courtesy Audubon Society of Rhode Island

The State of Our Birds report is an early effort to address those troubling realities. The report used dozens of volunteers to comb through Audubon’s 14 public properties in 2022 and — this is science, but it’s also what birders enjoy doing anyway — track the birds they saw. They also used point counts, where all the birds within a certain point are tracked.

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Those numbers, along with detailed data on the birds’ habitat, will provide a baseline for future research. What sort of habitat does, for example, a black-and-white warbler need to thrive, and what more could be done to support them? Black-and-white warblers were found at 79 percent of Audubon refuges in this most recent report. It remains to be seen how many black-and-white warblers will be found at Audubon sites in the years to come, but regionally, trends for the bird are negative: its numbers have declined 2.5 percent per year over the past half-century.

They are not alone. Besides two wings and a bill, the nine bird species that the Audubon in Rhode Island considers “Responsibility Birds” share a few traits: They’re relatively easy to track, there are clear steps that can be taken to conserve them, and they serve as a good “umbrella” species — conserving them means conserving others like them. And finally, they’ve all been in some degree of decline in the region for decades based on Clarkson’s crunching of numbers from decades of data of bird surveys. (Technically, the report uses the term Mid-Atlantic region, the coastal areas stretching from Virginia to Maine.)

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Clarkson, who is the organization’s first director of avian research, told attendees at Saturday’s symposium that it was their responsibility — the word of the day — to act to save the birds they all love. These nine are a start.

“Everyone can contribute to the conservation of these species,” Clarkson said.

A follow-up report on migrating species is due in May. And, Clarkson said, volunteers will be needed in the years to come to help track the Responsibility Birds. More information can be found on Audubon’s website.

Here’s a look at the nine bird species the Audubon Society of Rhode Island will track:

Chimney swift.Courtesy Audubon Society of Rhode Island/Shutterstock

Chimney swift

Population trend: Declining about 1.6 percent per year for decades, but even more steeply in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island than in the mid-Atlantic as a whole.

Notable fact: They’re said to look like flying cigars in flight, but they’re named after another thing that smokes: chimneys on houses, which is where they roost and nest, though they spend most of their lives in flight.

Barn swallow.Courtesy Audubon Society of Rhode Island

Barn swallow

Population trend: Declining by a little less than 1 percent a year, though also more rapidly in Rhode Island and its neighbors than the larger region.

Notable fact: Another bird named after a place where they can be found, and like the chimney swift, they’re in trouble because of loss of this sort of human-made habitat.

Common yellowthroat

Population trend regionally: Declining by about 1.5 percent a year.

Notable fact: As the name suggests, they are a very common species of warbler and can easily be found by even the most impatient or mediocre of birders, despite years of decline. They’re particularly susceptible to brood parasites like the brown-headed cowbird.

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Common yellowthroat.Ed Hughes

Prairie warbler

Population trend regionally: Declining by about 2.7 percent a year.

Notable fact: They’re the least widespread of the nine Responsibility Birds, and they’re declining across most of their range.

Eastern towhee

Population trend regionally: Declining more than 3 percent annually.

Notable fact: When you’re birding you’re often craning your neck up, but these birds like to rummage on the ground. They’re also declining more rapidly than other Responsibility Birds, though they remain common.

Wood thrush

Population trend regionally: Declining by about 2.4 percent a year.

Notable fact: It’s hard to pick favorites here but this bird arguably has the most beautiful song of the Responsibility Birds. And it’s facing population declines, though one of the easiest places to find (and hear) them is at Audubon’s George Parker refuge in Coventry.

Prairie warbler.EDHUGHES

Black-and-white warbler

Population trend regionally: Declining by about 2.5 percent a year.

Notable fact: They’re warblers, but they act more like a creeper, spiraling up and down the trunks of trees for food. They’re also particularly susceptible to forest fragmentation.

Scarlet tanager

Population trend regionally: Declining by a little less than 1 percent a year.

Notable fact: They’re like the ruby-red convertible of bird life — scarlet body and jet-black wings. That’s part of why they were picked as a Responsibility Bird. They’re unmistakeable.

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Red-winged blackbird.David Uliss

Red-winged blackbird

Population trend regionally: Declining by about 1.3 percent a year.

Notable fact: They have what some may consider a grating call, but when you start hearing it, you know spring is coming.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him @bamaral44.